Monday, April 16, 2007

Coriolanus and Class Conflict -or- The Aristocracy: Screwing the Plebians by Screwing Each Other

Yesterday I went to see Shakespeare's Coriolanus . (Is this one of the plays that the Reduced Shakespeare Company refers to as on of the "apocrypha"?) The production was excellent , with massive, beautiful sets. (Although in retrospect, the sets didn't use space that creatively - door, balcony, that was about it.) The acting was marvelous, too. The program even included a synopsis of the development of alternative interpretations of the text from Shakespeare's day to now.

Coriolanus is a fascinating play because at different times it has been adopted by right and left wings of society. Sometimes the play tells the story of a noble hero, destroyed by the small-mindedness of the madding crowd. Other times it tells the story of a authoritarian brute who detests and betrays the Roman people, for whom he is supposed to act, and whom he is supposed to love.

It is a political play, so much so that Brecht would have been very proud (believing, as he did, that drama should not offer escape from political problems but rather urge people into discontent and action about them). Indeed Bertholt B. may have been proud, since he staged his own version.

Based on my experience, Coriolanus seems to be a decent lipmus test of one's political affiliations. One of the people I saw the show with felt that Coriolanus should have been played more nobly. We ought to be shown, my companion said, his inner strength of character and nobility. I thought he was an animal, more loyal to the aristocrats with whom he waged his games of war than to the people. These he disdained to the point of an irrational hatred (hating that which he fears he is, maybe?). I saw in the play a portrait of how the community of the aristocracy was more loyal to itself than to the people over which it was supposed to be steward. After all it is the aristocrats who speak with common language, common manners, common education. And when the people of Rome take away Coriolanus' nobility? The aristocracy of Rome's enemy welcomes him with open arms (and in this version, even fondles him a little bit)

So there, packed into just a few hours of blood and dialogue, is an excellent example of the re-hash-ability of culture. Its one play, but directors, scholars and viewers can swing it in many ways. Is it too post-modern to say that there is no single meaning for a work of theater or literature or art, but rather a constant struggle over meaning, one generation after another?

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